Fighting for the Dignity of All People
Shela Shanks shares her life of justice.
Living Buddhism: Thank you for sharing your experience with us. What aspects of your upbringing shaped your sense of mission?
Shela Shanks: Thank you for allowing me to share my experience. I grew up in Kansas and Nebraska in a family heavily involved in the struggle for civil rights. The summer before I entered first grade, I participated in my first sit-in with my father. He attempted to buy an orange soda for me at the lunch counter of a five-and-dime in downtown Kansas City. When we were refused service, he sat down on the floor and started singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” I was afraid and cried, but sat down and sang with him: “We shall not, we shall not be moved / We shall not, we shall not be moved / Just like a tree that’s planted by the water / We shall not be moved.”
The police escorted us out of the store, and we rejoined my mother, siblings and a handful of other protestors who were picketing another store a few blocks away that refused to hire African American employees.
What did you take away from that experience?
Shela: Although I learned to take a stand for justice, that incident imprinted in me an image of myself as a second-class citizen, an inferior and disempowered person based on the color of my skin. Those feelings became more deeply embedded about a year later, when my siblings and I weren’t allowed to enroll in a newly constructed school that the white children in our neighborhood attended. I remember leaving the school feeling ashamed, angry and confused. I often asked my parents why we were so hated.
How did your family persevere?
Shela: My father drilled in me the importance of excelling at everything, as society had two strikes against me: my gender and race. Although my parents stressed the importance of a college education, they discouraged me from dreaming big for a career, perhaps to shield me from disappointment.
Despite graduating from law school at the top of his class, my father took the bar exam three times. He was told he failed, but was never given his score nor was he permitted to view his results. That ended his dream to be a lawyer. He eventually secured a job with the federal government, but only after filing a complaint when he learned that he was falsely recorded as failing the civil service exam. These were common occurrences at the time for black people.
Even in the face of death threats and intimidation by law enforcement, my parents fought for equality, but they eventually relocated our family to Nebraska, mistakenly believing there might be less discrimination there.
What career path did you pursue?
Shela: After college, I earned a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to Brazil. When I returned to Nebraska, I was bluntly told at several job interviews that I would not be hired because of my race, despite my qualifications. This was more than 10 years after the anti-discrimination laws passed in 1964. After I filed a claim, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that I had been discriminated against. However, I was not offered an alternative job option. Fed up, I left the Midwest in 1980 for New York City, where I encountered the Gohonzon and the SGI.
How were you introduced to Buddhism?
Shela: I had actually heard about Nam-myohorenge-kyo many times from well-wishing strangers as early as 1977. In 1985, I noticed how happy a friend of mine had become, and I asked him, “What are you doing?” He immediately said, “I chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo!” Witnessing my friend’s actual proof, I started practicing right away.
As a new member, I was deeply moved when I read: “There should be no discrimination among those who propagate . . . Myoho-renge-kyo . . . be they men or women” (“The True Aspect of All Phenomena,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 385). I had never heard of a religion that expressed equality between women and men, let alone all people. I knew that I had found a philosophy I could believe in, and promised myself to stick with Buddhism. I believed that it was the best teaching for someone like me, who grew up as a target of unjustified hate.
What was your practice like in the beginning?
Shela: Soon after receiving the Gohonzon, I became a district women’s leader, and I learned the importance of “practice for oneself and others.” I will never forget visiting the homes of members in my district, with my young children in tow.
Many people lived in desperate circumstances with problems beyond anything I had experienced. We chanted together and always read from the World Tribune, as we strove to change our lives. Sometimes, I visited two or three members a day. Within three years, my district grew to nearly 100 active members, who crammed into my apartment for meetings. I also did my best to make monthly financial offerings to the SGI regardless of my circumstances.
Through my efforts for kosen-rufu, I was able to surmount the idea that I was a second-class citizen doomed to a life of disappointment. I vowed to actualize the principle of “all the fathers and mothers of the preceding seven generations and the seven generations that followed, indeed, of countless lifetimes before and after, were able to become Buddhas” (“On Offerings for Deceased Ancestors,” WND-1, 820).
My husband and I decided that our children would attend one of the top private schools in New York City, despite the high tuition fees. In the end, my husband was hired to teach at the school we wanted them to attend, which waived the tuition for our four children. My Buddhist practice taught me to never let external circumstances determine the direction of my life!
How was your career shaped in the process?
Shela: In 2000, I enrolled in law school, directly facing the fear I developed watching my father’s struggles. My first job as a lawyer was with a major New York law firm. It was a temporary position, with the possibility of being hired full time. The supervisor singled me out for special projects that were designed to make me fail. Even as I successfully completed these projects, he berated me. He was not only rude to me in front of others but also made racist jokes at meetings.
I often cried in the bathroom and tried to follow Nichiren Daishonin’s guidance to Shijo Kingo to not be swayed by “censure or praise” (See “The Eight Winds,” WND-1, 794). I determined to work harder than anyone else and to not harbor a grudge. Things got worse when I learned that he had secretly met with the white temporary attorneys to tell them about a job opportunity that I was not to be told about.
Soon after this incident, I received life-changing encouragement that helped me understand how my environment reflected back my own self-doubt and low self-esteem. As I chanted about my circumstances, I recognized that I felt like a victim in many areas of my life from not fully believing in my Buddha nature. I could see how I depended on my environment for validation of my self-worth.
How did you challenge your circumstances?
Shela: Although I had practiced Buddhism consistently for 21 years, I realized that my “practice for others”—my efforts to encourage members and my spirit to introduce others to the practice—had grown stale. I had settled into a self-centered practice. I chanted sincerely to overcome my self-hate and my own racial biases. And I sought to replicate the earliest Soka Gakkai members who, despite being berated as a gathering of the “poor and sick,” sought to help one person a month receive the Gohonzon as a powerful cause to transform their desperate circumstances and destiny.
In 2008, I helped seven friends receive the Gohonzon. I was also able to take my mother, who was not an SGI member, to the Florida Nature and Culture Center in the last years of her life.
These causes made me want to dig deeper and challenge myself by facing my past head-on. In 2012, I decided to leave a well-paying job and comfortable life, and move to my hometown in Nebraska. I was 57 years old and determined to overcome my lifelong fear of the obstacles of race and gender. I stuck to my plan even though I did not secure employment before my moving date despite putting in many job applications. After moving, I chanted fervently to overcome nagging doubts that sometimes overwhelmed me. I threw myself into SGI activities. Within four months I had a great job.
Today, I serve as the director of attorney admissions for the state of Nebraska, ensuring a fair process for all applicants, regardless of gender, race, nationality, age or disability. I report to the highest legal officer in the state, the chief justice of the State Supreme Court. I am also counsel to two Supreme Court commissions. I draft legal advisory opinions that impact the law, serve on national committees related to the admissions process for attorneys and travel frequently, staying in world-class hotels that would have barred me in the past. I know now what it means to change seven generations worth of karma.
What an inspiring victory! What is your determination for the future?
Shela: I was recently appointed the women’s leader for SGI-USA Iowa-Nebraska Region, and I am thoroughly enjoying visiting the members and striving to achieve kosen-rufu with them. It takes 800 miles, or 12 hours, to travel from one end of the region to the other, which is certainly a challenge. Our geography, however, allows me to put my whole life into encouraging each person, while appreciating the beautiful, vast landscape of Iowa and Nebraska. Spreading the Mystic Law in my hometown moves my life each day. As a proud Nebraskan and a disciple of Daisaku Ikeda, I vow to fulfill my mission to spread the Buddhism of the Sun across the American heartland, so that no one need settle for a disappointing life—so that all people are able to become Buddhas.